CBS reportedly tried to hire Peyton Manning as its lead NFL broadcast analyst before it re-signed Tony Romo to a deal that will pay him an absurd $18 million per year. Now ESPN, after trying but failing to sign Romo away from CBS, is looking to sign Manning for its NFL broadcast booth. (Insert pointing Spider-Men meme.)
According to the New York Post, "ESPN would like to team (lead ABC play-by-play man Al) Michaels with Manning in its dream booth." The report claims ESPN also has interest in free-agent NFL quarterback Philip Rivers as an analyst, but "Manning is now ESPN’s top choice as analyst after Tony Romo agreed to his 10-year, $180 million deal to remain with CBS last week." Front Office Sports reported Thursday evening that ESPN is preparing to offer Manning $18 million to $20 million per season, which would put him ahead of Romo.
The reason why ESPN is focused on creating such a high-profile broadcast booth for its NFL games: Why not?
The network knows it needs to swing for the fences in upcoming NFL rights negotiations, and a Michaels-Manning booth would give ESPN one hell of a bat.
Simply put: ESPN's current deal with the NFL — which is set to expire in 2021, a year before the expiration of the league's deals with NBC, CBS and Fox — is bad. ESPN reportedly pays more than $1 billion per year for the right to broadcast "Monday Night Football" games, for which the quality in scheduling has slipped, without being part of the Super Bowl broadcast rotation. NBC, on the other hand, reportedly pays just $950 million for the rights to "Sunday Night Football" games, which has become the league's premier prime-time package, and its place in the Super Bowl rotation.
As evidenced by ESPN's reported pursuit of first Romo and now Manning and Michaels, the network wants to challenge for a much bigger and better package this time around. ABC last broadcasted a Super Bowl in 2006 (after the 2005 NFL season), but the Disney-owned network, now affiliated with ESPN, could work itself back into the Super Bowl rotation with upcoming negotiations for the next TV deal that will begin in 2022.
"If ESPN pays enough they could secure (a Super Bowl)," Fox Sports executive Patrick Crakes told The Big Lead in March. "For ABC though. Not ESPN — although they could do a simulcast with ABC. They could also secure a Super Bowl with a new package of 8-10 games carved out from current Sunday daytime, London/international and holiday games.”
Though one could argue the quality of a given NFL matchup is more important than the quality of the announcers calling the action when it comes to the public's interest in a given game, the networks clearly believe a high-profile broadcast team will be a key chip on the bargaining table.
ESPN knows what it would get from Michaels. The 75-year-old is among the most renowned play-by-play men in American sports history.
Hiring the 43-year-old Manning would be a bit of a gamble given his lack of experience, but the risk with what surely would be a monster contract is calculated. The former NFL QB's Romo-like charm is ideal for the booth, an estimation with which CBS evidently agrees based on its reported offer of $12 million a year for five or six seasons for Manning's analysis on TV.
As long as Manning is decent in the booth — an upgrade from the widely panned work of current analyst Booger McFarland — and if his presence helps ESPN secure the NFL right package it desires, then the gamble on a rookie TV personality will have been worth it.